NCCU Dinner with Discoverers: Chemist, Dr. Mansukh Wani

Dr. Mansukh Wani with NCCU pharmaceutical sciences master's students Edward Garner (left) and Adama Secka (right). Credit: DJ Kroll

The NCCU Eagles RISE program is a NIH/NIGMS research education program for which I serve as principal investigator at North Carolina Central University in Durham. When I moved to the Research Triangle area, I had the opportunity to work as a pharmacologist with the late Dr. Monroe Wall and Dr. Mansukh Wani, scientists who with colleagues discovered the anticancer compounds, taxol and camptothecin. I first came to know of Dr. Wani while I was a graduate student in 1987 while attending a DNA topoisomerase chemotherapy conference at NYU in Manhattan. To be honest, I was too nervous to even introduce myself to this legend of natural products chemistry. Almost 25 years later, I am now blessed to call him a family friend. One of the other joys I have is sharing the now 86-year-old Dr. Wani and his story with my students. Here's a recap of our visit with him as posted on our NCCU Eagles RISE blog:
  On the evening of October 26th, we had the remarkable pleasure to have dinner with Dr. Mansukh Wani, Chemist Emeritus of RTI International (formerly Research Triangle Institute). Together with his longtime collaborator, the late Dr. Monroe Wall, Dr. Wani and colleagues isolated and determined the structures of the anticancer drugs Taxol and camptothecin. Taxol has been a mainstay in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer while camptothecin gave rise to two, semi-synthetic FDA-approved drugs: topotecan (Hycamtin) and irinotecan (Camptosar). For these discoveries they received numerous awards culminating in the naming of the RTI Natural Products Laboratory as a National Historic Chemical Landmark of the American Chemical Society in 2003. The landmark application was led by Dr. Nick Oberlies, now in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Nick and I reformulated the application and supplementary historical information into a 2004 review article in the Journal of Natural Products (DOI: 10.1021/np030498t)

Shalonda Ingram and Adama Secka, master's students in pharmaceutical sciences, show off one of the original isolates of taxol from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, Taxus brevifolia. Credit: DJ Kroll

In this interview for an Indian publication in the Research Triangle, Dr. Wani shares what it was like to move to North Carolina in 1962. He graciously accepted our invitation to tell these and other stories to us at Sitar Indian restaurant, a Durham favorite. Rather than recap his discussion of his career, we thought it would be more valuable to share with you student insights from their evening with this remarkable, warm, and humble man. From Adama Secka, M.S. Candidate, Pharmaceutical Sciences: Wednesday, October 26th 2011 will be a day that I will always remember for the rest of my life; I met the most incredible man in our science world. He was most genuine, kind, patient, and supportive - I mean he is the co-discoverer of the anti-cancer agents Taxol and Camptothecin and he found time to have dinner with us and give us his autograph. What an incredible man! During the dinner, he showed interest in every one of us and gave us advice, I was so impressed with him, his life story and the road to discovering Taxol. He has inspired me to NEVER give up and always believe in my work. Thank you very much Dr. Wani. From Melony Ochieng, RISE Scholar, Senior, Pharmaceutical Sciences & Chemistry: On October 26 2011, I had the privilege to have dinner with Dr. Wani, who is accredited with the discovery and characterization of camptothecin and Taxol. Taxol now constitutes 22% of all major cancer chemotherapy drugs in the world market. Last year alone it grossed in 2.4 billion dollars, lengthening millions of people’s lives.  As an aspiring medicinal chemist, I know very well that is hard to discover a biologically active compound, but even more elusive is the discovery two compounds. With these facts in mind, I wanted to know what makes someone a great scientist. What were the rules of success? For two hours, I listened attentively to Dr. Wani as he narrated his life story and came to this conclusion; I want to be like Dr. Wani. I want to find satisfaction in my work so much so that I can persevere during down times of research. I want to surround myself with people who continuously pursue their dreams. In addition, I want to have a mentor like Dr. Wani’s whom will recognize my potential and helped me gain the confidence to pursue lofty dreams. Lastly but not least, I want to continuously strive for excellence. As he reiterated, the structure of Taxol is complex. It has 11 chiral centers, that is 2048 stereoisomers. With so many possibilities, they might have not published the correct structural configuration of Taxol, if they were not striving for excellence. Above all, I like Dr. Wani want to serve others something of value.

NCCU Eagles RISE and NCCU science students with Dr. Mansukh Wani. Left to right: Anthony Clark, Edward Garner, Veatasha Dorsey, Melony Ochieng, Dr. Wani, Dr. Kroll, Shalonda Ingram, Adama Secka, and Jovia Ochieng. Credit: Sitar Indian Cuisine, Durham, NC

From Anthony Clark, Senior, Biology: A few days ago I was invited to attend a dinner with some of my friends and other classmates. I did not expect it to learn anything, just a night out as a college student hanging with friends over food and drinks. However when I arrived, there sits an older man chatting with a few of the students whom arrived earlier. From my perspective all I see is a nice elderly gentleman who is soft spoken and mild mannered enjoying a few appetizers and the company that sits around him. As people settle in Dr. Kroll briefly introduces Dr. Wani and tells us that he has some words that he would like to share. He shares with us that he (Dr. Wani) is one of the (if not the most important) discoverers of Taxol and Camptothecin. Two of the major anticancer agents still used today…WOW.  Not what I thought when I first saw him. And it’s not as much as what he did but how he did it, through perseverance and determination. What I gained most from that dinner was to never give up on your dreams and dedicate your life to a good cause and you will enjoy it. From Shalonda Ingram, RISE Scholar, M.S. Candidate, Pharmaceutical Sciences: Dinner with Dr. Wani was a mind blowing and monumental experience that I will FOREVER remember. Although there was SO much to gather from the night, the most important messages that really hit home were the messages of humility and perseverance, both of which seem to have played an essential role in the success of Dr. Wani. Having the opportunity to sit beside him and experience his presence and expertise for just those few hours provided a lot of inspiration to continue in the path of my career to achieve all that I wish to achieve.  And last, but certainly not least, Environmental Science & Political Science Senior, Veatasha Dorsey shared with us her 14-minute video reflection on meeting Dr. Wani: Thank you Dr. Wani for a truly memorable evening.

Author: David Kroll

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  1. Nice!!